The Book, Cat, & Cat Book Lovers Almanac

of historical trivia regarding books, cats, and other animals. Actually this blog has evolved so that it is described better as a blog about cats in history and culture. And we take as a theme the advice of Aldous Huxley: If you want to be a writer, get some cats. Don't forget to see the archived articles linked at the bottom of the page.

November 6, 2016

November 6, 1922

Ronald Blythe (November 6, 1922) is an English writer, essayist and editor. You should know about him, and so this article as an introduction.

The track down which Ronald Blythe first walked in 1947 sinks into a valley on the border between Suffolk and Essex and ends at Bottengoms Farm. Everything in the rambling garden is blazing on an oddly hot autumn day. The runner beans are plentiful, and three roses throw competing scents into the air. A recently vacated folding chair shows that Blythe has just taken his lunch outside. It is a deeply peaceful scene....

Bottengoms Farm is the star of Blythe's latest book, At the Yeoman's House. "It's a kind of poem, the book, isn't it?" he says diffidently. A book about your home might be considered a narrowing of horizons that comes, quite naturally, with old age. Blythe, who is 89, has lived a geographically restricted life. He has never left East Anglia for more than a month at a time. His writing, however, is vivid and outward-looking, part social history, part memoir. In the new book he spins all kinds of tiny stories and vivid recollections from these sturdy, independent dwellings built by yeomen – countrymen above a farmer but below a gentleman – in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Blythe is best known for Akenfield, his stark account of village life in Suffolk, which was published to instant acclaim in 1969. He thinks of himself primarily as an essayist and poet but has written two novels and many short stories, has edited editions of Thomas Hardy and Henry James, and inspired a generation of nature writers, including Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin, who became close friends. This has also seen the publication of At Helpston, a collection of lucid essays about John Clare (he is president of the John Clare Society), and every week for two decades he has written his "Word from Wormingford" diary for the Church Times. He continues to accept speaking engagements across the country. While Penguin and Faber have recently republished his classic works, it is perhaps surprising that only small publishing houses are publishing his new writing.
Blythe was born in Suffolk. His family has lived here for centuries; even his surname comes from its river Blyth. He thinks his mother, who "read all the time", is responsible for his love of books. He devoured French literature and wrote poetry. He did not go to university but does not feel that he missed out. "I was brought up with all these very cultivated people, botanists and artists. None of them went to university." Working as a reference librarian in Colchester library, he met Christine Nash, wife of the painter, John Nash, and was first invited to their home, Bottengoms Farm, in 1947.

There was a run of spectacularly good summers in the late 40s. "It was Provence, or even Paris, in Suffolk," he writes, as he was thrust into a glamorous, rather bohemian world. He became friends with Sir Cedric Morris, who taught Lucian Freud and Maggi Hambling and lived nearby with his partner, Arthur Lett Haines. "I was a poet but I longed to be a painter like the rest of them," says Blythe. "What I basically am is a listener and a watcher. I absorb, without asking questions, but I don't forget things, and I was inspired by a lot of these people because they worked so hard and didn't make a fuss. They just lived their lives in a very independent and disciplined way. "Christine found him a cottage near Aldeburgh, and Blythe was introduced to Benjamin Britten. They became friends and he edited festival programmes for Britten while wrestling with his first novel. One day he returned home and found a note pushed under his door inviting him for a drink at Britten's house. It was from EM Forster. "How he knew I was there I don't know." Blythe met Forster a number of times; they would go shopping together for groceries, and Blythe helped Forster write an index for his biography of his great-aunt, Marianne Thornton. ....

..... Blythe's first, Forster-inspired novel, A Treasonable Growth, was recently republished by Faber Finds. Another book republished by Faber, The Age of Illusion, a social history of life in England between the two world wars published in 1963, led to an editor at Penguin asking Blythe to edit a series of classics for the Penguin English Library. He began with Jane Austen's Emma, and chose one of his heroes, William Hazlitt, for his next volume.....

Blythe had no idea
Akenfield would have the impact it did. Fifteen million people watched Peter Hall's film of the book, shown simultaneously on TV and in the cinema, in which Blythe had a cameo as a vicar. His portrait of village life captured a hitherto barely noticed revolution in the countryside: Akenfield marked the end of an essentially feudal pattern of farming by hand and horse that had endured for millennia. Within the lifetimes of the people he wrote about, physical hardship, poverty, deference and communities centred on the land and the church had been pushed aside by the juggernaut of industrial farming....

Upstairs at Bottengoms, on lopsided floorboards, is Blythe's desk. He writes by hand every morning, sometimes in the garden, and then types it up. He does not use a computer and has never driven a car. "Hopeless, you see," he says. Blythe is generous about contemporary nature writers, including Mabey, Deakin and Mark Cocker.

... Blythe loves writing but is less comfortable discussing how he does it. "I don't know how to describe it. When I'm writing I'm in a kind of dream," he says. "It's a bit like looking at your own profile in the mirror. You shrink from it." He is firm about one thing: he is not a nature writer, nor a country writer but a writer who lives in the country. This undercuts Mabey's belief that Blythe is a "first-class naturalist" but reflects the breadth of Blythe's passions. He is "heavily influenced by George Herbert and a lot of Christian poets and also just by simple village worship", but turned down the chance to become a priest; he is a writer and could not run a parish, he says, although he takes services as a reader and is a canon of the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. He is not saddened by the loss of the church as the central organising factor in village life; the church, he says, has "always gone up and down" and its buildings "are beautifully kept, ancient and full of treasures. It's part of the pattern of life, prayer and music and great language."

Blythe describes his writing as the work of "a solitary man who is serene and not bitter and who loves nature and poetry and has a circle of friends, but mostly is by himself." He has never lived with anyone. Has he ever been lonely? "No, I don't know what it means." 

....His reticence, he agrees, is in part a generational predisposition, "a matter of taste and feeling", but it may be more than that. Blythe adores Virginia Woolf's writing, and briefly met Vanessa Bell at Aldeburgh. Mrs Dalloway said that love and religion would destroy the privacy of the soul. "A lot of people in my stories say things like that," Blythe says. I start to mention that one small anecdote about his love life was revealed in a biography of the crime writer Patricia Highsmith. "I slept with her," he interjects. In the book he was quoted as saying that she breached the boundaries of their friendship by exploring him physically, on one or two occasions. "Well, it wasn't my fault really. She lived four miles from me and she came over every week for several years. I admired her enormously. She was a very strange, mysterious woman. She was lesbian but at the same time she found men's bodies beautiful. And I think she found me beautiful. But it was ridiculous, really. She also drank like a fish which I don't do."....

In the 1970s, Blythe nursed John Nash, and wrote The View in Winter, a prescient look at old age which he considers one of his best books. When Nash died, Blythe inherited Bottengoms. This autumn, the village school has not reopened its doors for the first time since 1870, he remarks lightly. There has been a hollowing out of village life, a kind of disenchantment, which he has captured in his writing.....

Friends have suggested alternative homes but, Blythe says, "I just tumbled into these places and stayed. I like routine and solitude, and the kind of order of reading and writing and thinking and drifting.

"I won't pretend that it's some great romantic thing. It's simply the countryside. I take it very much for granted. I'm not infatuated with it or anything like that. It's a normal place to live." Then again, he seems to agree that a still life in a still place must do something to you. "If you go for walks with a friend in the countryside, that is a lovely experience. But if you live as I live in the middle of nowhere by yourself, that's another experience. There's nothing mystical about it, but it makes me dream. If you're in this house, surrounded by fields every day, something happens to you. I don't know what it is."

A book he wrote is titled: Circling Year: Perspectives from a Country Parish (2001).
It includes this passage:

Regular worshippers at Little Horkesley will have observed that as well as having a devoted choir, we also have a devout cat. I say 'devout' although many believe that his regular-as-clockwork appearance when the bell tolls has something to do with there being Whiskas in the vestry, a soft carpet in the sanctuary, and soft laps in all directions. But as I say, who can doubt the goodness of this beautiful and well-behaved cat, and who can say that his deportment in church is not a lesson to us all.

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